This article appears in the April 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Mike Babcock eyes the standings and laughs. "Good luck picking a winner this year," the Red Wings' square-jawed bench boss says. "It's so tight. I don't envy you guys who have to figure it out."
You don't have to be a Cup winner or an Olympic champ (both of which Babcock is) to sense that the NHL playoffs are as wide open as they've been in years. With 11 days left in the regular season, 15 points separated the eight Western Conference seeds; since the NHL expanded to 15-team conferences nine years ago, the West has never ended with a smaller spread. At first glance, then, Babcock seems right -- divining a champ from that mess would be maddening.
Certainly, there is no magic statistic to help. Since the lockout, a team hasn't had to score the most or allow the fewest goals to hoist the Stanley Cup, nor has it needed to field the top power play or penalty kill. Just look at last season: The Penguins finished the regular season 17th in goals against, 20th in power play efficiency, 18th in shots, 18th in shots against and tied for 19th in faceoff percentage -- and none of that stopped them from winning it all. That should tell this year's Capitals something. Specifically, don't rest on the laurels of your numerically dominant season. No stat foretells a title.
If anything, the team in DC should be a bit concerned. Coaches and execs focus on the composition of a team's roster when they sit down to forecast Cup chances, and what they look for doesn't coincide with the Caps' many strengths. As the experts see it, the road to the Cup runs straight through the center of the ice. "If you want to win it all, you'd better be strong down the middle," says Hurricanes president and GM Jim Rutherford, architect of the '06 Cup holders. "That means good goaltending, strong centers and a couple of defensemen who can move the puck."